With only 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, their population concentrated in just three countries (Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), opportunities to see them up close are few and far between. Amy Czarnecki, an Africa specialist at Audley Travel, shares her experiences of trekking through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in search of these humbling creatures.
The anticipation built up with every step, as we made our way slowly through the tangle of trees and roots, the air heavy with moisture. Our guide had received word from one of the trackers that a troop of mountain gorillas were nearby, but there hadn’t been any sign of their presence – no snapping branches, no warning calls.
The moment we came upon them is difficult to describe – I was completely taken aback by their size, beauty, body movement, and how they seemed entirely unfazed by our presence.
They remained fairly still (perhaps they were a little sulky about the damp weather), which really allowed us to sit and observe them, taking in every inch of what they were doing.
One gorilla was lying on his back with a hand under his chin looking at the sky. He was so pensive that it made me wonder what he was thinking about. As they relaxed in their nests, made of branches and leaves, the gorillas chewed on vegetation from the surrounding trees and waited to dry off from that morning’s downpour.
The gorillas are used to having humans visit in a friendly capacity, which showed in the way some acted as though we weren’t even there – our group had to part as one female gorilla with a four month old baby walked right through.
Other gorillas seemed more curious. I was taking a photograph when I suddenly realised that a young male had come right up to me, barely half a metre away. When I lowered my camera we were face-to-face. As a rule, you keep a seven metre distance away from the gorillas at all times. Of course, the gorillas don’t realise this and the young ones in particular often approach you out of curiosity, although they rarely make any physical contact.
The Gorilla Troops
On a single gorilla track you’ll see one troop, which vary in size. Typically, gorilla troops are made up of around 10 to 15 members, although there can be up to 20 or 30. There’s always an alpha male silverback, the main protector and leader of the group, as well as a secondary silverback should anything happen to the alpha. A small number of younger blackback males act as sentries, keeping watch along the perimeters of the troop’s territory. There’s also an alpha female who’s the predominant mate of the alpha silverback, along with a few other females and their young.
Volcanoes National Park in the northeast of Rwanda is home to around half of the world’s entire mountain gorilla population, including ten habituated gorilla troops. Rwanda strictly protects its gorillas to help conserve their numbers and their natural behaviour.
Just eight people are permitted to visit a group at any one time. While this means you need to book your gorilla tracking experience well in advance – particularly if travelling during the peak season of July to September or January to February – it also makes the experience all that more intimate and ensures that the gorillas don’t feel threatened.
You’ll be given a choice of treks that vary in terms of their difficulty – this depends more on how challenging the terrain is than the distance. An easy trek could mean the gorillas are two hours away but the walk is fairly level, whereas a more difficult trek could only take you around half an hour to reach the gorillas but traversing steeper land at a higher altitude. Your guide can help you decide which trek is best suited to your fitness and energy levels that day.
I chose an easier trek, which involved a 45 minute walk through farmland, where we saw local people planting potatoes and harvesting crops. A rock wall separated the farmland from the forest, which rose immediately up in a solid green mass. The tracker had indicated that gorillas were just five minutes away, but the dense vegetation and lack of any trails kept this from being a simple stroll. Navigating the forest, we carefully stepped over roots, beat back branches and weaved between tree trunks.
Guides and trackers to see the gorillas
On your trek, you’ll be accompanied by a guide and around five or six trackers. They stay mostly ahead of the group to check the location of the gorillas and radio information back to the guide. The trackers are armed, mostly to protect the gorillas from poachers as well as for your safety.
A permit costs US$750 per person for each gorilla track, regardless of the length, difficulty and time of year. Most people only embark on one or two treks during their trip. There’s also the possibility of completing a golden monkey trek in the same area, although these take place at the same time as the gorilla treks so you’d have to stay longer to do both.
Practicalities for gorilla tracking
Because there are different hike options covering a range of abilities, people of most ages can take part in a gorilla track (a couple in their 70s were in my group). I’d suggest only selecting the harder treks if you’re up for a challenge and have a good level of fitness. The gorillas are usually at elevations of between 1,800 and 3,300 metres, so the hikes get harder as the air gets thinner. I’d also recommend preparing your body for hiking before you go, especially if you’re not used to walking longer distances.
You’ll have the option to hire a local porter, who can help carry your bags and assist you over the more treacherous terrain. Many of these men were once gorilla poachers, but now appreciate and help to protect them through tourism. The porters are paid in tips, usually US$10 to 20 per trek.
What to wear for seeing gorillas
In terms of clothing, you need to be prepared for all weather. I’d recommend wearing light hiking boots, gaiters for extra protection against water, ants and other insects, waterproof trousers and jackets, and quick drying, lightweight clothes to overcome the hot and humid conditions.
When you get to the gorillas, you’ll be required to leave your bags behind with a porter so the gorillas can’t smell any food stored in them. It’s a good idea to bring a small secondary waterproof stuff sack for carrying extra camera equipment in when visiting the gorillas, with the visit normally lasting around an hour.
When to go for gorilla trekking
There isn’t necessarily a best time of year to go to Rwanda. In April and early May and from November to December there’s a lot more heavy rain, so it depends on how intrepid you are and your travel dates. The peak times are generally January to February and July to September, but travelling in March or June means there will probably be fewer visitors and more flexibility on when you can do the treks.
Where to stay for gorilla trekking
Accommodation near Volcanoes National Park tends to be in simple but practical lodges. I stayed in Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, just a half hour drive from the park’s entrance and headquarters. It offers simple but comfortable rooms, reasonably good food and friendly staff who provide a boot cleaning service after your trek.
The more luxurious accommodation options, such as Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Virunga Lodge, are further away: around an hour and a half from the park headquarters. Set higher up in the mountains, they have 360-degree views over the mountain range and forested valleys, as well as a more personalised service and higher quality furnishings.
Top tip for your gorilla experience
My best advice for making the most of your gorilla trekking experience is to take photographs, but also to put your camera down – even for only a short while – and really just be in the moment.
Why Rwanda for seeing the gorillas?
A beautiful country with pristine countryside and friendly people, Rwanda is a tremendous example of how a country can recover from the darkest of events after the 1994 genocide, which resulted in the loss of around 20% of the country’s population.
On my visit, I was struck by the generous and forgiving nature of the people, as well as by the way they can seemingly farm on any piece of land available to them, putting my own gardening efforts back home to shame.
Volcanoes National Park is the best place in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild. It’s more easily accessible than Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and a safer place to visit than the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain gorillas are the most endangered gorilla species on the planet, so the remarkable conservation efforts made in Rwanda are critical for their survival.
Visit Audley Travel to help plan your trip to see the Gorillas in Rwanda
Trips from Audley Travel don’t come off the shelf – they’re tailor-made down to the finest detail. When planning a trip with us, you will speak to a destination specialist who has either lived or travelled extensively within the country or region that you are visiting. They will create a bespoke trip based on your tastes, interests and budget and with an absolute commitment to providing quality travel experiences.
About the author
Amy Czarnecki has a passion for travel and the natural world, and is always seeking adventure. Exploring her home country of the USA, she sea kayaked across the Prince William Sound, hiked to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington state and surfed off the coasts of Florida, California and New England. It was while working as a Mount Kilimanjaro trekking specialist that she fell in love with Africa, joining Audley Travel as an Africa specialist to help others discover the delights of Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.
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